By Betty Berry, Tuesday, December 7, 2010  Q: I am part of a small group that plans to visit several long-term care facilities during the holiday season. It will be our first attempt at doing this, and we feel a little inadequate about relating to the residents. Are there any do’s or don’ts that would make both the residents and us more comfortable during the visit?

A: First-time visits of this kind usually make most people a little apprehensive. You have discovered an underserved population. More than 5 million people live in long-term care facilities and about 60 percent of them seldom, if ever, have personal visitors.

When you visit you will find many residents in their rooms. Even though the door is open, their room is now their home. Knock and ask permission to enter before walking in. This little courtesy will be most appreciated and provides the resident with a little control over the visit.

Once in the room, introduce yourself and ask for the resident’s name. Don’t use his or her first name without asking because some residents come from backgrounds that were much more formal about names and still prefer to be addressed as Mr. or Mrs.

Many residents will likely be in beds or wheelchairs. Since it is uncomfortable for them to look up for an extended period, conduct your visit at the resident’s eye level.

Place your chair so that you are facing the resident. You should not be between the resident and the window because the glare from the window will cause you to be seen only in silhouette. Never sit on the edge of the bed unless invited or given permission to do so.

Since you don’t personally know the residents, your individual visits should be fairly short. Sometimes just a few words will be sufficient. A comment about a pretty blouse or sweater, or acknowledging a photograph or trinket in the resident’s room, will be enough to start a short conversation.

Always be on the alert for signs of fatigue and be ready to end the visit should that occur. If the resident becomes ill or agitated or needs help getting in or out of a bed or wheelchair, call a nurse or aide. Your help, even though offered with good intentions, could do more harm than good.

If a resident asks you to remove a vest or restraint, do not honor that request. These restraints are worn under doctor’s orders and are for the safety of the patient.

While visiting, be an attentive listener and be patient with repetition.

You might be asked for sweets or cigarettes. Never offer or provide these items without first checking with the nurse on duty. Some might be allowed and others prohibited due to dietary or medical restrictions. Don’t rely on what the resident might tell you about being allowed to have such items.

When leaving, don’t promise to come back if you know you can’t or won’t keep that promise. If you do set a date and time to return, arrive when expected to avoid disappointment. If you must break an appointment, call ahead to make sure the information gets to the resident.

Always treat the residents with the dignity and respect their long years deserve and remember that your visit is a ray of sunshine for them.

With these things in mind I’m sure you will feel more confident and comfortable in your role of visitor.

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Just a reminder that the annual open enrollment period for Medicare is under way. If you want to change your healthcare insurance coverage or Medicare Part D Prescription plan, this is the time to do it. Annual open enrollment will run through Dec. 31. The coverage that you have on Dec. 31 will be the coverage that you will have for 2011. If you have questions, contact the Health Insurance Counseling Advocacy Program at 800-434-0222.

— Betty Berry is a senior advocate for Senior Concerns. The advocates are at the Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362; call 495-6250 or e-mail (please include your telephone number). You are invited to submit questions on senior issues.

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